Jean Cocteau

The French writer Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) explored nostalgia for childhood and adolescence, frustration in love, and fear of solitude and death.

Jean Cocteau was born in a suburb of Paris and brought up in a well-to-do home frequented by the artistic notables of the day. As a schoolboy at the Lycée Condorcet, he was anything but a model pupil, but he charmed his teachers by his verve and brilliance. His official debut was at the age of 18, when the renowned actor édouard de Max gave a lecture on Cocteau's poetry. Cocteau soon visited Edmond de Rostand, Anna de Noailles, and Marcel Proust; everybody and everything fashionable attracted him.

When the Russian ballet performed in Paris, Jean Cocteau was there. Soon he proposed to its director, Sergei Diaghilev, a ballet of his own. The resulting Blue God, which was not presented until 1912, was not a success. Not daunted, Cocteau started the ballet David, for which he hoped Igor Stravinsky would do the music. Although the ballet did not materialize, Potomak, a curious prose work of fantasy dedicated to Stravinsky, did get written, and texts composed for both works were finally incorporated in a ballet called Parade. Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso collaborated with Cocteau on this production, for which Guillaume Apollinaire, in a program note, coined the word surrealistic.

After World War I, when Dada and surrealism replaced cubism and the "new spirit," Cocteau played about with the new ideas and techniques without adhering strictly to any group. The mime dramas of The Newlyweds of the Eiffel Tower and The Ox on the Roof as well as the poems of The Cape of Good Hope all demonstrate the manner of the day without, however, following any prescribed formula. Subsequently, in verse Cocteau reverted to more conventional prosody, and in fiction, to an uncomplicated narrative style. The Big Split and Thomas the Impostor present in forthright prose the themes of the author's life and times.

Antigone opened Cocteau's series of neoclassic plays, which enjoyed great success from the late 1920s on with their sophisticated props such as oracular horses, symbolic masks and mirrors, angels, and mannequins. The same trappings would be maintained for his plays of romantic or medieval inspiration and would constitute, as well, recognizable features of Cocteau's films.

In the universe that Cocteau's work evokes, the boundaries between what is real and what is unreal disappear, and none of the conventional oppositions such as life and death or good and bad remains fixed. Enveloping the work is a hallucinatory atmosphere that is characteristic. Cocteau was elected to the French Academy in 1955.

Further Reading on Jean Cocteau

Francis Steegmuller's sympathetic Cocteau (1970) is the most comprehensive biography. Margaret Crosland deliberately avoids gossip in her Jean Cocteau (1955). Neal Oxenhandler in Scandal and Parade: The Theater of Jean Cocteau (1957) expressed indignation at what he considers unfair treatment of Cocteau. Wallace Fowlie is frankly admiring in Jean Cocteau: The History of a Poet's Age (1966). Elizabeth Spigge, collaborating with a French biographer (Jean Jacques Kihm) on Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror (1968), handles her subject with bland discretion. Not so, however, Frederick Brown, whose hostile treatment of Cocteau has given An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau (1968) particular notoriety. Brutal though it is, this is a witty and well-written book.

Additional Biography Sources

Album Masques, Jean Coctea, Paris: Masques, 1983.

Cocteau, Jean, The difficulty of being, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Cocteau, Jean, Souvenir portraits: Paris in the Belle Epoque, New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Peters, Arthur King, Jean Cocteau and the French scen, New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

Steegmuller, Francis, Cocteau, a biography, Boston: D.R. Godine, 1986, 1970.

Touzot, Jean, Jean Cocteau, Lyon: Manufacture, 1989.